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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Just Started Rereading... Kerry Greenwood's Urn Burial!

This is the old cover of the book, which I bought when it first came out. The gent with the lamp is the delightful David Greagg, a children's writer, retired secondary teacher and leading member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He's Kerry's "registered wizard" and partner. The newer cover is pretty, but no David. 

I just felt like a reread. This is Kerry's Agatha Christie tribute, with a cast of standard Christie characters listed at the front, a country mansion with the river swelling and threatening to cut them off and a murder! Unlike in Christie, the victim is a servant, not one of the privileged members of the house party. Which says something for the author, a lawyer with Legal Aid, one who looks after people who can't afford to pay and became a lawyer for that reason. Oh, and there are the characters from the past, disguised and revealed in the last few scenes, so familiar from Christie's detective yarns. And there's a nice old lady, always knitting or crocheting, as she chats - and listens - cheekily called Mary Mead, a salute to Miss Marple. 

  Interestingly, there was a short story, "Overheard On A Balcony",  in the Phryne Fisher collection A Question Of Death, which was the seed of this story, only it was set in the Queenscliff Hotel(a gorgeous place in a seaside town in Victoria - I've been there and had lunch on the verandah, gazing out to sea...)and the murder victim developed into the villain of this novel. 

Despite the grim-sounding title, the book was great fun, especially if you have read Agatha Christie. I just had to rummage it out from among all the Greenwood books on my shelves and start my reread! I'm unwell and it's perfect for reading on the sofa whole trying to recover from a cold.

But I will have to put it aside, as I've just received the first two books in the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy so as to be able to interview the delightful author, Juliet Marillier. I have to do that soon, as she's heading overseas, so off to Reader Land! See you on the other side.

Monday, September 19, 2016

September 19: On This Day!

I was listening to the radio this morning, my mother's favourite station, as I was spending the night with her. They announced some actor birthdays that interested me - Adam West, who played Batman in that over-the-top version, before films started turning him into something deadly serious, turned 88 today. 

David McCallum turned 83. For me, he will always be Ilya Kuryakin, the lovely Russian colleague of Napoleon Solo. I used to have a photo of him above my bed when I was in my teens. I read in his Wikipedia entry that at the height of his fame he was getting more fan mail than anyone in MGM history, including Clark Gable and Elvis Presley! Wow! Apparently, when he got a role in the forensics TV series NCIS, he went off and studied up on forensics to the point where he was invited to speak at conferences and was asked to be a technical adviser on the show. 

I did once get to see him on stage,  in a tour of Run For Your Wife. And in Babylon 5 as a scientist. 


However, more importantly for this book blog, I checked out the authors - and one illustrator - born On This Day, and there were quite a few I'd actually read. Here are some of them:

1867: the delicious illustrator Arthur Rackham. If you haven't seen any of his art, shame on you! Go look it up on Google Images RIGHT NOW!

Okay, here are a couple

Public domain

   Public domain

1908Mika Waltari, author of The Egyptian, which was made into a film with Edmund Purdom, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons and quite a few others. It was the first Finnish novel to be filmed by Hollywood. 

1911: William Golding, author of Lord Of The Flies. He did a lot more, of course, but that's the most famous. I first read it when I was in my teens, on the recommendation of a school friend. It's such a grim story, and probably realistic...

1922: Damon Knight, author of a lot of SF books, but most famous for his short story, "To Serve Man". I probably shouldn't talk about it, because of the punch line spoiler, but read it! It's probably free online somewhere by now. 

1947: The extraordinary Tanith Lee, author of some wonderful fantasy novels and short stories, who could not only write a great yarn, but write it beautifully, as in "beautiful writing." My favourite is Drinking Sapphire Wine, but I love them all. 

What is it with this date that has produced so many fabulous creative people? I don't know, but we're lucky to have them.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

An Interview With Alex Isle

Every two years some members of the Australian SF community run something called the SF Snapshot, asking authors about their writing. Each one is different, with only two questions in common across the interviews. 

I've had two of these, but this year nobody invited me, or my guest, Alex Isle, formerly Sue Isle, so after Alex mentioned it on Livejournal, I suggested we do our own unofficial Snapshot. Mine will appear in Apocalypse Wih Rats and I'll give you a link when it appears.

Really, I should have interviewed this wonderful author a long time ago. We've known each other since the start of our careers. We both used to write Star Trek and other media fan fiction in the good old days before the Internet made it possible to write celebrity fan fiction, fiction about real people(Shudder!) 

Alex Isle's short stories are very, very Australian, though his only novel(see below) is set in a vaguely European Renaissance world, and he had a delicious story about Mary Bennet of Pride And Prejudice, a TARDIS and a certain famous fictional villain in shared universe anthology New Ceres Nights...

 You are best known to your fans and friends as Sue Isle and even  have your very own Wikipedia entry under that name. Would you share your reasons for the change of name?

In 2014 I changed my name from Susan to Alex to reflect a gender change identity and adopted the pronouns he/his.  Publications before 2014 are under the name Sue Isle.  And thanks for the heads up about Wikipedia.  I had forgotten the page was there and have now altered it as much as I’m able.  It’s an ongoing process because I’m not that computer savvy.

As a writer, what is your favourite genre? Despite being known mostly as the author of dark fantasy, you do seem to vary, from mediaeval fantasy to science fiction. So, what do you enjoy writing most?

It changes from time to time, but I lack the knowledge of hard science necessary to be really good in that field and my historical knowledge is only amateur, so I feel most comfortable in urban fantasy and horror of the present day or near future speculations.

You've written quite a lot of short fiction over the years. Do you feel most comfortable in this type of writing? 

Well, it’s easiest to finish and maintain a taut pace!  Also the opportunities for selling short fiction are much greater, since the anthology is a popular form in the sf and fantasy genres.  But I would love to break properly into novel writing.

Do you have a favourite story of those you've written? What is it and why?

Again, this answer keeps changing.  I like to think I’ve become better over the years and sometimes wince when I look at some of my early efforts.  I have a rather dark sense of humour, so the story I wrote for Orb, "The Woman of Endor" [2001], is still a favourite because it features the Jesus-as-a-zombie trope, which always seemed a logical interpretation to me.  And no, I’m not a believer.  I know my idea of the historical period is probably dodgy, but the story still won me an award so I’m happy.

"A Sky Full of Ravens" in She’s Fantastical, a1995 anthology edited by Lucy Sussex and Judith Buckrich, is another favourite because it sparked the interest of Hodder Headline, who published my first actual book, the aforementioned Scale of Dragon, Tooth of Wolf.  This is the first appearance of my teenaged witch alter ego, Amber, and her troubles with authority and the story ended up as a reworked chapter in the book.

My current favourite, "The Kind Neighbours of Hell",  is one of my few recent stories.  I have been rather blocked in writing fiction over the past few years and this one,published in the 2014 Peggy Bright Books anthology edited by Simon Petrie and Edwina Harvey, again appealed to my weird sense of humour.  It’s also the only one under my changed name so it feels right to me when I look at it.  Use Only as Directed is the name of the anthology, which had the theme of human invention, learning from others’ mistakes and what happens when Murphy’s Law goes pear-shaped.

I had fun with alternate worlds and calling up demons in this, a world where demons are very much a thing and where my main characters (a couple of teenaged boys) become everyone’s warning about why you never, ever, do this at home.

You've written for children, Wolf Children, a couple of articles in the wonderful School Magazine(now celebrating its 100th birthday)and your YA novel Scale Of Dragon, Tooth Of Wolf - would you consider writing for children or teens again if you got the opportunity? (In fact, are you considering finishing the sequel to Scale Of Dragon, which ended on a cliffhanger?)

I love writing for teens, it’s one of my favourite areas of literature.  I think a lot of the books and stories have fresher and more interesting ideas and interpretations of those ideas than quite a few adult books.  They aren’t bogged down with their own length and they have so much hope and anticipation for the future.

School Magazine is the most amazing publication and bunch of people I have ever met as an author!  I wish I could write more for younger children just so I could send stuff to them.  They recently asked to reprint an article I wrote about how wolves became dogs – 18 years after the original was published.  And they sent me an invitation to their 100th.  I would so like to read some of the early publications.

I’m sorry about the cliffhanger in Tooth; it wasn’t supposed to be like that, though having the heroine ride into the sunset isn’t that horrific an ending.  I did write another, but it was not accepted due to poor sales for the novel, and this sequel died with one of my previous computers.  What I would write now would, in any case, be very different and I may yet get to that, perhaps as a self-published e-book.

There is something very Australian about a lot of your writing and your landscapes. Could you tell us a bit about that? 

Well, I guess that’s natural since I was born here and lived most of my life here.  So even though I write fantasy and sf, the grounding of those stories really is what I know; the city of Perth, a bit about Melbourne, which is the eastern city I know best, and various towns and country areas I have visited, particularly when I was young.  Nearly all the fantasy I read as a kid originated in England, which never bothered me at the time, but later on I wanted to write about my place.

Can you describe your writing process? For example, what happens after you get an idea? If you like, describe the process of writing a single story among your many. 

My recent writing process has not been a smooth one.  I feel a bit guilty to claim writer’s block, which feels like an excuse, but the truth is I have not felt the sense of opportunity and openness which I remember in the past.  I have only completed a few stories in the last two years, which have been absorbed with my gender transition, something I felt I had to do in order to be able to write properly again.

That isn’t really what you asked, I know.  When I start with a story, it’s often with a person, an image of a person, sometimes a name, and a sense of where they are and what they are thinking about.  The problem, the focus of the story, comes after that.  So I guess I will use my latest story, the only one unpublished, as an example, since the earlier the story, the less I tend to remember about how it came to be.

It’s called "All We Have Is Us", written earlier in 2016, unpublished.  I wanted to write a zombie story, the one ‘monster’ I’ve never featured from the classics of vampire, werewolf, shambler, and to set it in a post apocalypse Perth.

Sian, a teenaged scavenger, discovers a secret dungeon in what was once a wealthy mansion, containing a woman who has been there before the outbreak.  

I started with that idea; a destroyed civilisation and a person so secluded that they don’t know civilisation has been destroyed, in a sense, a time traveller from the days before.   The story is from Sian’s POV, so again I started with the person, put her in her place, in the middle of something she’s doing.  To her, this is the normal world.  The survivors all have the morals of their age; your survival counts first, then your group, and the people beyond, not at all.  The prisoner has the soft morality of the First World, so the question is which ethics are going to win.  Is it possible that the prisoner has something to teach the survivors of a zombie plague?

I have these ideas in my mind while I write, and while I’m introducing characters and dialogue and the characters are trying to decide what to do.  It’s also about men and women, because I wanted to have female characters leading without making a really blunt point about it.  It’s not a thing to have a female leader; she’s just the leader, the strongest person in all the things that matter in this new world.  Male physical strength doesn’t mean a whole lot when you’re facing creatures who can kill you with a bite and who are vastly stronger than any living person because they hold nothing back when they use their strength.  Being a survivor is a headspace.  So if the characters find the person who imprisoned the woman years ago, will they punish him by the old morality or the new?

I hope that makes a little bit of sense.

Finishing with the two official Snapshot questions, which I hope the Snapshot folk won't mind:

What Australian work have you read recently and loved?

I have to admit to being an epic fail here.  I checked my book blog back until early this year and haven’t read any book by an Australian author in that time.  I think the last one was Gillian Polack’s  Langue[dot] doc 1305, the book whose title I can’t type out without checking it.  That would have been shortly after it was published in 2014.  I remember enjoying that a lot and feeling it was the first accurate time travelling novel I’d ever read.

Origin is not the first thing I look for, I admit; I follow genres or ideas I’m interested in and the nationality comes second.  But I will accept a reading list if folk want to provide one! 

What author, living or dead(let's assume they're snatched from their own time and not actually zombies!)would you like next to you on a long plane flight?

I would never have opted for a zombie; they can’t talk and would steal your food.  There’s probably quite a few I would like to choose from, but writers I have enjoyed for a very long time come top of the list, such as Rudyard Kipling or Rosemary Sutcliff.  Hopefully they also didn’t mind chatting to fans.

Thanks for visiting The Great Raven, Alex!

For anyone who'd like to read Alex's short story collection, Nightsiders, or New Ceres Nights, they are both available at the Twelfth Planet web site, here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Happy 100th Birthday, School Magazine!

Last night, there was a celebration I had to miss because it was in Sydney and I had family commitments that wouldn't allow me to travel interstate. I was thinking of it, though, and hope to get a photo or two to share with you in a future post. 

The NSW School Magazine has now been delighting Australian children for a century. I was one of them, though it didn't look this good in my childhood! It's made up of four reading levels - Countdown, Blastoff, Orbit and Touchdown. Each is for a different age. There are stories, plays, articles, cartoons, letters to the editor. It's simply wonderful! 

And a great market. I first heard of it as a market at a library conference, where the guest of honour was Geoffrey McSkimming, author of the Cairo Jim adventures and, more recently, the Phyllis Wong novels. Geoffrey was working for the School Magazine at the time. He told me they had four different magazines and they came out four times a year, so they needed plenty of material.

I have written quite a few articles for them over the years, on everything from space travel to forensics, from archaeology to the story of the original Siamese twins. (Apparently, one teacher said she couldn't get her class to focus on their next lesson after they read that!). I haven't submitted anything for a while, must get back into it. It's a wonderful market, especially good for non fiction writers now that the book market has dried up. (And it has. Look at the Eve Pownall non fiction part of the CBCA shortlist and most of the books are published by specialist organisations such as museums, not by regular publishers. The education market is only good nowadays if you're a part of their stable of writers.)  

And most of Australia's favourite children's writers have written for it at one time or another; it's a bit like the writer equivalent of Playschool, which has employed some of the country's biggest actors, only they all did that at the start of their careers, whereas School Magazine's writers are only too delighted to continue submitting. 

I wish I'd been able to go to the party yesterday, but still, I want to wish School Magazine all the very best for their next hundred years!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Just Finished Reading... The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead

I heard about this novel on Radio National last weekend, in an interview with the author, and downloaded it from iBooks immediately.

A fascinating premise! We've all heard of the Underground Railroad, of course, that network of ordinary people who helped smuggle escaped slaves out of the South, at the risk of their own lives. But it wasn't a real railroad, underground or otherwise, right?

Well, the author of this novel asks, what if it was? What if there really were tunnels under the homes and barns of abolitionists, leading to railway tracks, with trains coming every now and then to smuggle slaves out of their bondage?

This is the only fantastical element in the story; a lot of the other elements really happened in our world. And nasty they were, too. Very nasty! The heroine, Cora, is on the run from her plantation in Georgia, and a truly horrible master who is quite willing to suppress rebellion by torturing slaves to death as an example to the others. A number of times she thinks she has found a good place to live, only to find herself pursued by Ridgeway, a professional slave catcher/bounty hunter who is obsessed with catching her, because her mother was a failure on his part.

And along the route, she sees many new "worlds" in the United States, and their different ways.

The last scene of the novel left me scratching my head. I thought, "Er... Is that it?" A very sudden ending!

But interesting. I wonder if that one element will qualify it as a piece of speculative fiction? It's certainly alternative universe, and the whole notion of "stations" and "stationmasters" is woven into the fabric of the book.

What do you think? Is it spec fic? 

Friday, September 09, 2016

Escape To The Moon Islands. Book 1 Quest Of The Sunfish by MardiMcConnochie. Crow's Nest: Allen And Unwin, 2016.

Annalie and Will live with their father, Spinner, in Lowtown, one of the shabbier parts of a city in Dux, in a world struggling up from a worldwide flood connected with attempts at fixing climate change disasters. Spinner is a mysterious figure. They live "off the grid." 

When Spinner suddenly has to flee from pursuers he has expected for a long time, the twins also must escape, Annalie bringing her friend Essie from their boarding school, where she had a suspicious visitor, Beckett, soon after her father's disappearance. Beckett had asked some questions that made her conclude he was up to no good. The children, who had spent a lot of time sailing with their father, know how to sail very well. They have to steal back the boat, which has been impounded by the Admiralty, the world's rulers, and set sail to find their father, using a few clues they have picked up. One more member is added to the crew, Pod, a former slave rescued from a rock where he was marooned. Then the adventure proper begins. 

And it is quite an adventure, or a series of adventures, from talking apes(left over from an experiment in making animals talk)to a cannibalistic religious cult. They're travelling through an archipelago of islands that range from dead to tropical, so they might find anything along the way. 

There is a definite lesson on what climate change might lead to, not to mention who might rise to the top - in this case, the Admiralty, which began as a way of getting the world through the crisis and ended up staying in power. 

The characters are good, each of them contributing their knowledge to the quest. Annalie is the intellectual, who remembers things - and the only possible navigator. Will steers the boat and does most of the repairs when needed. Essie, the rich girl with no special sailing skills, offers to cook - and, at one stage, becomes ship's medic because she saw all this stuff on a TV series. Pod can't swim, but has plenty of support skills to offer, and knowledge of pirates. 

I did wonder how the villain, Beckett, was able to track the fugitives so easily, something not explained by the end of the book. He simply turns up right under their noses whenever they're feeling safe. Not on a following ship, though there are those, but right there, ready to capture whichever of them is in a street, getting supplies along the way. The children wonder briefly about it themselves at one point, then don't discuss it again. Perhaps it will turn up in the next book, though I suspect not.

Still, suspension of disbelief should help the reader get on with enjoying the book, which is basically a road story with islands instead of towns on the way. 

There's also a distinct flavour of Jules Verne, especially Captain Grant's Children aka In Search Of The Castaways, a Disney film of the 1960s. Well, why not? Perhaps children who read this might try Verne next. 

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Star Trek!

Live long and prosper!

Okay, I took a "selfie" here because it's just too much trying to find a photo that's not copyright to Paramount or whoever. And they can't claim copyright on the gesture, which is part of the Jewish tradition, though our people do it with both hands. Still, I don't have copyright either.

Fifty years ago, On This Day, the first aired episode, "The Mantrap", was aired, about a creature known as the Salt Vampire, the last of its kind, which could take on the appearance of anyone it wished, to help it get close to an intended victim. (I used to use this as an excuse to attend Austrek parties out of costume, claiming that I was the Salt Vampire, who had eaten Sue Bursztynski at the door)

Star Trek means a lot to me. I grew up with the original series. I was a science fiction fan looking for real SF. I found it in Star Trek. In later years, according to an interview a friend and I did with David Gerrold, author of "The Trouble With Tribbles", Gene Roddenberry was upset that he wasn't getting respect from the SF community, so decided that he was having no more SF writers on his show. You might notice there was a stable of scriptwriters on the spinoff shows, and none of them had any SF credentials, as far as I know. Not that the spinoffs weren't wonderful in themselves, but there weren't any of the big name SF/F writers of the original series.

I'm talking about the likes of Jerome Bixby, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad - should I note Harlan  Ellison? Well, he did write the original "City On The Edge Of Forever", except they rewrote it completely and he complained about it quite a lot in the years that followed. Still, he won awards both for the original script and the episode and I hadn't heard that he turned down his Hugo. I do understand how he felt, though. As a writer, I wince! But he went on to work on the new Twilight Zone and Babylon 5, which I assume didn't do that to him. 

And a classic episode of a classic TV show has his name on it, however he may feel.

Larry Niven's story "The Soft Weapon" became "The Slaver Weapon" on the animated Trek. Mind you, he later had his story removed from Trek canon, but then, I don't think Roddenberry considered it canon either, though it had some lovely episodes, especially Dorothy Fontana's "Yesteryear". I think Dorothy Fontana wrote some of the best episodes of the series and she did some lovely stuff for Babylon 5, too.

There was an episode based on Fredric Brown's short story "Arena". Having read the story and seen the episode, I can say the episode is different, but it's still Fredric Brown.

Isaac Asimov never wrote for the show, but he said in an interview that where Star Trek erred in the science, it did so intelligently. 

And what about the Trek novelisations?  Also done by well-known spec fic writers! The live action episodes were written by James Blish and the animateds by Allan Dean Foster. I actually preferred those, because they were developed into novella-length stories, but Blish did pretty well considering he had to squash so much into short sttories!

I have a vague memory of seeing a script for one of the spinoff shows, and where a character was supposed to explain the science, there was the word "technobabble" in brackets, to be filled in later.

Last Saturday night, my own birthday, I went to the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick to see Adam Nimoy's crowd-funded documentary about his father, For The Love of Spock. It was nearly two hours long and well worth sitting through every minute. There were not many people in the small cinema, but those who were there were all fans. Who else would sit through a full-length documentary about Star Trek lateish on a Saturday night? Glancing around, I saw happy faces with smiles on them. I must have looked the same.

I already know quite a lot, but there were things I hadn't known about Mr Nimoy and his family's lives. Like the fact that he never turned down any work because he wanted to make sure that what had happened to other actors on popular shows when their TV series were cancelled never happened to him. So, he'd finish filming on a Friday, catch the red-eye flight somewhere else and do another job over the weekend. His work hours were long - that I knew - and when they were over, he'd go home, have dinner and read lines with his wife. All that meant the kids didn't get to see much of him, but they still had to sit for family portraits in the magazines - and help with the fan mail!

There were interviews with everyone Adam Nimoy could get hold of - all the surviving members of the original cast, members of the new cast, some directors... There were snippets of archival footage, but also some bits of interview with him, because this film started before he died.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will be available on DVD at some stage, because it gave me a lot of pleasure and I'd love to re-view it at some stage.

So, I wonder what the new series will be like?

But the joy of our wonderful Internet era is that fans are making their own films, some of them including the original cast. I think it may be their version of fan fiction, which we oldies had to write for publication in fanzines. Myself, I've written around 150 fan stories in my time, and at least 100 of those would have been Star Trek. It was a part of my early life in fandom, and I don't regret any of it! It taught me to write short fiction and develop characters within the limit. It also taught me to write book reviews, without which this blog might never have existed.

By the way, if you'd like to read some of the old fan stories, there's a wonderful web site, 1001 Trek Tales, which has republished a lot of the old classic stories - all of them with permission of the authors or their estates. (There are two of mine up there, not my greatest, but still, I'm chuffed... They happened to be what the site owner had in her collection).

So, to all fans out there, live long and prosper!